Hezekiah, King of Judah, was sick unto death and prayed earnestly for an extension to his days. The prophet Isaiah came to him to say that 15 years would be added to his life, and the Lord would send him a sign of this. Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sundial of Ahaz, 10 degrees backward. So the sun returned 10 degrees, by which degrees it was gone down. Isaiah 38:8.
A solar eclipse seems to have happened, making the shadow move in a way that gave the impression that time had been reversed. Ahaz, the wicked predecessor of Hezekiah, probably obtained the sundial from the Babylonians, and it is guessed to have been something like a series of steps with a post on top. Whatever its design, from the above verse it can be seen that it was capable of yielding quantitative measurements. What happened next is described as ... the business of the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent unto him to inquire of the wonder that was done in the land. 2 Chronicles, 32:31.
Merodach-baladan, King of Babylon, sent these ambassadors evidently for the specific purpose of collecting the data on the event that just occurred. The Babylonians were keenly interested in astronomy and astrology and would have greatly valued anything that could aid their understanding in these matters. If the sundial was of their construction, they probably had a good idea of how to extract the information they needed from the recorded data.
Data Has Value
There are a couple things that stand out in this story from 2,700 years ago. The first is that data itself has been regarded as a valuable asset for a very long time. Yet if we think in terms of the vast seas of data that we generate, measured in bytes, then it may seem that the unit price must be low. That is not the way to think of data. If it were, data would have a scrap value, and it has none. The value of data comes not from its quantity, but from what it enables someone or something to do - from its usage.
Unfortunately, usage cannot necessarily be determined. It is very unlikely the Babylonians would have told the Judeans exactly what they were going to do with the sundial data, but it would have been obvious that they saw value in it. Indeed, a producer of data may not even be able to understand what a consumer of data is doing with it. The loan-servicing business for mortgages is quite different than the securitization business that packages these loans into bonds and sells them. Yet the securitization business relies on the data that comes from the loan-servicing business. It may be that data seen as worthless today may be more valuable tomorrow as new uses are developed. Perhaps clickstream data will become a lot more valuable once techniques such as anonymous profiling are perfected.
As data professionals, we are sometimes a little too data-centric, and we need to think more about what we mean when we say that data is a valuable corporate asset. That term is just a little too glib. Is it any data, or all data, or what? Surely data is valuable only in some kind of context. To value it means truly understanding the business use of data, which requires a different mind-set than figuring out if it is in third normal form.
Another facet that resonates from the story is the existence of data producers and consumers and their relationships. Most data professionals will eventually have to deal with emissaries sent by the equivalent of princes of Babylon who reign elsewhere in the enterprise and have an appetite for data they do not produce. This separation of consumers from producers is at the heart of a lot of issues we face today, such as master data management. It is a source of subtle problems we are only just beginning to understand. For instance, data produced in an operational application may have its meaning constrained in some way by the business rules implemented in the logic of that application. If this data is simply transported somewhere else, leaving the rules behind, what does it mean? It is quite possible that in reality a column of data has a semantic profile that is different from what its name implies or its definition specifies. Worse than this, the consumers expectation of the data meaning may be different than what the data actually means. Which party bears the responsibility for sorting this out - the producer, the consumer or the ambassadors that broker a specific relationship? Or is it a combination of responsibilities? Much of this still remains to be figured out.